Classical Musicians Should Think More Like Pop Musicians

This is a take on this headline. I won't bother going through all the misinformation in this--from claiming for profits don't have boards and aren't beholden to other people's money, to being a for profit meaning you can't get grants, to all the strange and ignorant ideas of what pop musicians do.

So, let me approach this another way, from my experience as an audio engineer working with lots of groups, freelancing in a studio/rehearsal space, and actually having a clue about the pop music industry.

Classical musicians analyze their music and performance endlessly. Really good musicians stop analyzing the moment they step on stage to perform. Analysis is a part of practice, and the pursuit of perfection has to do with creating unconscious effort. Ensembles practice together until they know the music stone cold.

Pop musicians do the same thing. Have you ever known a serious guitarist in a band? Has his/her fingers ever stopped moving? Is there always a guitar in his/her hands? What about drummers constantly tapping, working through rhythms, practicing their parts?

Good pop musicians practice constantly. Yes, they practice differently. The difference is dictate heavily by the repertoire. They don't have to ask "What was the composer thinking?" because they probably wrote the parts. Or they are sessions musicians and aren't paid to think of nuance. Of course, neither are symphony or pit musicians--the interpretation is dictated by the conductor. This is of course, practical--having a unified artistic message is the most clear.

As for rehearsal time, well, As I said I freelanced in a studio/rehearsal space. I'd go in usually when big name acts were coming through and renting the space. Because, guess what, even famous bands still practice. I remember when Rev Theory came through Kansas City and rented the space. It was pretty great just chatting with the band and their engineer. The guitar player was stoked because he had rented one of Trent Reznor's guitars for the tour. They rehearsed all day one day, and then most of a second before playing the show the evening of the second day. Now, this group I think only peaked around 20 or so with a single, probably the one below. And they only put in 2 days of practice while on tour

The article brings up that pop musicians search less for perfection, that wrong is accepted, and there's a rawness to the music.

First off, these guys have never been in a studio working on an album with a pop group have they? Not in search of perfection? Here's a link to a nice article talking about recording a band, and going against the "do a million takes" idea. But let's put it in context; doing multiple takes is normal. Doing repeated takes until "you get it perfect" is normal. A major band when going into the studio often spends a month or more just doing the tracking. Here's a great article talking about the time and cost of putting together an album. There are major expectations on the sound of an album, and to do that, you have to be damn good. You can't fix everything in mixing and mastering. I've mastered a couple albums, and in each, while the recording was good, there were things I noticed that could not be fixed at my stage. The technology isn't there to make a recording perfect from a 75% accurate show. The technology is there to make 98% close to 100% (as long as you don't mind some formants getting a little iffy).

Ivan Trevino makes one great point about how classical musicians don't play enough. But he seems to ignore a big point about what happens when you start playing every night--you improve. Instead of rehearsing every night, you're playing gigs. The mentality changes, the way you play changes. It's not that pop groups aren't pushing for perfection, they've just trained themselves not to show it onstage.

I'm reminded of a speech told to me in jazz band by my professor, Randy Salman. He said "Don't show you missed a not. No one out there knows you missed a note. Just play the next one." Sage advice. Great pop groups do exactly that. They come on stage confident of their abilities--they've practiced and played the same songs repeatedly. They should be confident! And when there is a flub, usually it is completely forgotten.

Unless it's bad. Then the show goes to hell. There were ideas of what happened--was Scott Stapp drunk, high, what was happening? He said he was on prednisone for nodules on his throat. But what definitely happened is a lot of pissed off fans asked for their money back, sued the band, horrid reviews followed, and then Creed broke up shortly after the tour. So, wait, they don't care about perfection? They care about raw performances? And the audience doesn't notice? Bull...

No, you better be perfect. You better sound like your recording. And when you start mixing and matching studio techniques with live sets, well...There's still a human element. People don't want to think you're cheating. If you can do it in the studio, you better be able to do it on stage. Go to a metal show and watch the guitarists shred and tell me they don't think about all the music and practice to perfection. And plenty of pop musicians think heavily about the music--I know Anders Bjorler does.

The next whole section of this article is just purely incorrect. I don't know who taught Ivan Trevino business, but that teacher should be fired, or at least go back and give him F's for everything. Rather than dissect how horribly incorrect Trevino is about a number topics, from for profits not having boards of directors (HA!) to an odd statement like:
"We don't want a business dependent on other people's money. We want to be able to fund our own business through concert fees, album sales, and other streams of profit-based income, all centred around our fan-base.
If we do need extra income for a special project, we'll call on our fans for help. For example, we recently raised $50,000 through Kickstarter to do a public school music education tour around the US.
which just reeks of ignorance--sorry, you're still dependent on other people's money. And for some reason, I guess Trevino assumes donors to non-profits aren't fans?

And then the bit about being a for-profit means not applying for grants. Factually incorrect. Many grants require you to be incorporated as an artist, and this is, the majority of the time, for-profit. I can't name an artist who, on his/her own, is a non-profit. Now, for larger grant giving institutions, such as money coming from state and national government, yes, you have to be a non-profit. But individual artist grants, chamber music grants, etc. that are not provided by state-funds, that's not true. Why not actually look at the pros and cons of for vs. non profit? One thing to consider is the idea of "return of dividends." If you're seeking private funding (like crowd-funding sites), you are actually beholden to your customers. If you do not produce exactly what was advertised, they can ask for their money back or sue you. If they give you money, they expect a return on investment--recordings, concerts, etc. And if you don't provide what they want, they are gone. A non-profit the return is "social or cultural capital." That means the donors aren't looking for a specific return, such as a concert, but instead are expecting you to continue to serve your mission in a way that benefits society. You are not beholden to any of the donors to provide specific returns, though if they feel you aren't serving the community, donations could easily end. Many non-profits use a mixture of for and non profit ideas--they sell advertising, which businesses expect will provide immediate dividends. The product being sold isn't the performance, that performance is how you market selling advertising--"We will reach X number of people based on projections." That's a for-profit strategy in a non-profit set-up. But let's not get bogged down in how business actually works.

No, here's the core of the problem with almost all of Trevino's discussion about business: He's comparing a four person chamber ensemble to perception on how an incredibly large non-profit corporation are run. He's not comparing what Break of Reality does to eighth blackbird or JACK quartet. Why doesn't he compare what he does to eighth blackbird. They're incorporated as a non-profit, and I'm 98% sure no one tells them what program to do. Perhaps I should write them an email and ask.

This is the major problem for what Trevino is putting out there. His complaints aren't even about chamber groups, they're about symphonies. Symphonies have issues. And they are not run the same way as a smaller group. For a look outside music, why not examine community theaters. The Association for American Community Theaters has a nice set of tutorials for starting up a community theater. I've worked in a few of these, and let me spill a secret--most boards in small non-profits are made up of the people working in the non-profit. Yes, you read that correctly. When Tipton Community Theater started, the board was comprised of members who were also incredibly active in the creation of shows. They were the original directors, actors, and tech crew. Even as they have grown to a nice little theater able to mount a regular season (for, what, 20 years now?), the board is still made up of actors, directors, and tech people. The only professional staff used for the longest time was the business manager, and even now their head grant writer donates her time (disclosure, it's my mother, so I know). And you'll notice with eighth blackbird that all the members are on the board, along with a selection of other people (it's at the bottom of the page). If you tab over to the advisory board, you'll see some major names in music--it's almost as if they've surrounded themselves with people that will help them achieve their goals as an ensemble, not weighted themselves down with a board that will dictate their actions.

The dynamics of a small non-profit are wildly different than what Trevino seems to imagine. He's somehow equated non-profit with massive scale operation. This is a regular problem with people discussion music business. It's astounding to me that such incorrect rhetoric is so rampant.

The final section is entitled "No Fear." Trevino pushes for classical musicians to not have fear, and that's how you get booked. You just go into the club and say "Hey, book me!" You make a phone call and, boom, you're at Carnegie Hall! Perhaps he's right in that classical musicians don't have that mindset. I certainly don't. I dislike cold calling people. I remember getting offered a job doing cold call sales of coupon books. The commission wasn't great, you had to drive yourself, and you could be anywhere from New Brunswick to Wilmington, Atlantic City to Harrisburg. I needed a job, so I did a ride along. The basic idea was you went to businesses, preferably during non-peak hours (like a bar at 1pm), and tried to sell the coupon books to managers so that they'd give them away as prizes or incentives. For me, it was nerve-wracking, going business to business, trying to get people interested in buying the item.

I learned a few things doing this. First, I wasn't cut out for cold call sales. It was the selling that was the issue--I actually saved the skin of the guy I was riding along with just as he was about to get screwed by an incredibly shrewd older manager. It was just approaching someone who didn't care about what I did that was the problem. Second, I learned how horribly inefficient this model is. We beat the streets just going to random places. Most of the time we struck out. It's why most businesses don't do this.

And it's a bad way to do business as a band. I don't know any friends that got booked by just walking into a bar, handing a CD to the manager on duty, and saying "Book me!" Many regular venues have booking agents that handle everything. There's a single manager the deals with every booking request. Venues also usually have online booking forms--who are you, your contact, links to music, etc.

These forms are your first hurdle. Hardly anyone gets booked through these channels either. The local scene is about finding out who does the booking. The best way to do that is to get yourself into the local scene. Talk to other bands, become friends with them, go to their shows, and build a community. This is fairly normal in local pop scenes. Bands then share contacts; if your friends in another band got booked at a club, and they like what you do, they know how to hook you up. You find the booking agent, not usually from just looking online, but by going to the club during shows. You'll know him/her because of how the bands or tech guys treat him/her. Make the connection, chat with him, buy him drinks. Trust me, he knows the hustle. Maybe give him a CD, but be prepared for him to throw it away. Even better get his business car. Now you have his REAL number, not the email on the site, or the number that just rings the bar. For bigger venues, having an agent and a manager really help.

Wait, did Trevino mention his group has had a manager? And an agent? Hold on a second...that means he's not even doing the booking anymore. Oh, look, they have a professional booking agency and a professional PR group. Their hustle is finished. Once you reach that point, you've got a lot made.

This is not to denigrate the group--it takes a helluva lot of hard work to get to this point. To get an agent interested in you isn't easy. Check out this great write-up on getting an agent from New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Agents are your doorway into a much larger world. They find your opportunities and make contacts you don't have a chance at making. Here's a great tid-bit:

It used to be that young actors did “mailings”  -- sending headshots, resumes and cover letters to agencies “cold”; that is, with no contacts. Today that’s like throwing your headshots directly into the trash.
Here's some great advice on when, how, and why to get an agent as a writer. But what about music?

There are tons of different takes on this. One I go back to is by Saphreem A. King because he pulls no punches. Here's another from Music Think Tank. Here's a nice one by Jeff Rabhan for Reverbnation. And finally some more good advice.

Here's the thing, obviously Break of Reality were already really good at what they were doing. If not, their first manager never would have dropped in his card. But at the same time, there's a lot of luck involved--they were busking in Central Park, like thousands of others do, and just happened to have that happened. That's not the hustle. Yes, they were prepared to call the person, to make the leap. They obviously worked their butts off to be fantastic players. Without all of that, they never would have been noticed. But it's also incredibly abnormal. Just like it's abnormal to walk into a bar and say "Book me!" and get a gig.

More than that, it's horribly disingenuous to put out a "this is how to be successful" and focus not on the path they took, but on the finished product. So, let's revisit, really, what thinking like a rock band is, what really set this group up for success.

  • Practice a lot, and play a lot. Practice for perfection, but don't sweat it in a performance. But practice, practice, practice, like the stereotypical guitar player whose fingers never stop moving.
  • Be ready to jump at any opportunity--be it a manager dropping in his business card, a buddy giving you the name of a booking agent for a bar, or opening up for a major touring group
  • Market your unique product--what are you doing different musically? Push those differences. Make yourself standout
  • Do all the normal business things: get a website up; put together a professional recording (not a demo of a live concert, but a professional studio recording); get professional photos; and get very nice looking videos.
  • Create a huge network. I cannot stress this enough. Find people who know people who can put you on the path. Use those connections.
Want to know the crazy part about that list?

I could say the same thing for being a composer. But that's for another post.